Posts Tagged "Jacob Wetterling"

The men in the woods

Hello blogosphere… it’s been a while.

If it seems like things have quieted down a bit lately, I think it’s because maybe they have… at least for me. That’s not to say I’ve given up or shifted my focus, but I will admit that after all the positive energy we helped generate in Jacob’s case last summer, our little rag-tag justice league is feeling a bit… well, defeated.

I know we have definitely shaken the tree. I have talked to many different people, taken copious notes, organized hundreds of tips, and passed along numerous credible leads to Stearns County, the FBI, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Information moved very quickly, and at times, it became completely overwhelming. But I kept at it because we all felt like we were doing something important… like we were making a difference… and that we might be getting closer to finding an answer for the Wetterlings.

And then, the 25th anniversary came and went. On a beautiful fall day, with unseasonably warm temperatures much like they were in 1989, the entire state of Minnesota mourned the passing of the 25th anniversary of Jacob Wetterling’s disappearance. Twenty five years… what a blow. It was a milestone none of us wanted to acknowledge, in part because it’s just so unbelievable. How could this child still be missing after 25 years, with no trace and no answers?

Karla Hult from KARE-11 News put together a story that ran on Monday, October 20th, two days before the anniversary. (If you missed it, here’s a link.) It was hard to watch, mostly because I know what the Wetterlings have been through this past year. Usually the anniversary marks a hopeful time when new tips come in and new leads are generated. But this year, October 22nd came and went with still no answers… no feedback about the hundreds of tips we had helped generate, and no acknowledgement of any kind that all the work we had done had made any difference at all. Talk about defeating.

So, now what? Where do we go from here?

Well, for me, it’s back to square one. I was talking to someone just last week who asked me what my motive was in all this. What did I hope to gain by blogging about Jacob’s case? I didn’t even have to think twice about my answer. It’s the same reason I’ve given all along. My goal is simply to keep people talking… to keep “thinking Jacob”… and to get people to share their stories so that someone might possibly remember the one tiny detail that could be the key to solving the case. I’ve been very intentional about who I’ve interviewed, talking only to people who have a direct connection to Jacob’s case. So far, that seems to have worked well.

And so, with all that being said, I have a new story to share.

I was recently contacted by a young man who was the same age as Jacob and rode the same school bus. A few weeks ago, I met up with him and another friend of his from the old neighborhood. Later, they also put me in contact with three other neighborhood friends. This whole group has a pretty amazing story to tell.

In the summer and fall of 1989, this group of young teenagers spent nearly every day biking or riding go-karts through the woods just north of the site where Jacob was abducted. They also knew about the “party spot” in the woods, which I first heard about from Kevin back in 2013. (See my previous post, “A few answers… many more questions“) However, according to these young men, there wasn’t just one party spot in the woods; there were four.

Back in 1989, woods covered much of the area to the north and west of the abduction site. That land has since been developed into single-family houses, but back then, it was a popular hangout spot for the under 21 crowd.

The following map was created for me by one of the young men who used to live in the neighborhood. The green area shows where the woods and bike trails used to be. The blue area used to be a big open field, and the red circles show where the party spots were. (Note, I’m still waiting to hear back on the location of the fourth party spot.) The orange circle shows the abduction site.

Green areas were wooded and where bike trails located - Blue open field - Red party pits

In the days preceding Jacob’s abduction, this group of boys was riding along the trails on the west side of 16th Avenue, and happened to notice an older man who was sitting alone, off in the brush. He appeared to be writing things down in a notebook.

Right away, I asked the young men if this was the art student who had been seen sketching in the area. They didn’t know what I was talking about, so I clued them in. Not long after the abduction, police asked for the public’s help in finding the driver of a red compact car who had been seen in the neighborhood and acting suspiciously. After an article ran in the St. Cloud Times which included a composite sketch of the suspect and a description of the red compact car, a young man came forward and admitted to being in the area making sketches for his art class. He was later cleared.

The young men I talked to don’t believe this was the same guy. Their guy was older, in his 50s, with balding gray hair.

After they came forward with their tip, two FBI agents showed up at their school and took them to the Stearns County Sheriff’s Department to make a statement. They were asked to create a composite sketch of the man they had seen in the woods, and were taken to separate rooms. Each boy worked with his own sketch artist, and after all was said and done, their sketches appeared almost identical.

I asked them if their sketches had ever been released to the public, but they weren’t sure. I don’t ever recall seeing a sketch or hearing about this particular lead, and I’ve read nearly every issue of the St. Cloud Times from October 23, 1989 through 1990. So, I decided to give Stearns County a call and ask if I could get a copy of the sketches. As usual, I was told I could not… because it is still an open investigation.

So, all I can tell you about the two sketches (based on what I’ve been told) is that they very closely resemble the sketches of all the other mean-looking bald men that were released in this case. Maybe that was their reasoning back in the day for not releasing these sketches… because they felt it would be confusing to the public. Who knows, but that would make some sense.

As it turns out, this gray-haired, note-taking bald man was not the only suspicious character the boys saw in the woods during that timeframe. On a different day, one of the boys also witnessed a younger man, late 20s or early 30s, who was up in a tree with a clipboard. He was fairly skinny, with dark brown hair and a baseball cap. They were riding go-karts that day, and when they came back through the same area about an hour later, the guy was in a different tree. They didn’t think much of it at the time, assuming he was a student from St. John’s who was working on some kind of class project.

Again, I asked if the guy in the tree was the art student, and again, the reply was, “I don’t know.” However, another tidbit this young man remembers is that the guy’s car (or, what he assumes was the guy’s car) was parked on the edge of the woods, near what is now Klinefelter Park. It was not a red compact car, but a wood-paneled station wagon.

If you remember, I also wrote a blog post about three suspicious cars that were seen by neighbors around the Tom Thumb in the days and weeks before Jacob’s abduction. One of them was a wood-paneled station wagon. Read that blog post here

So, now I’m left with a lot of questions, and probably, you are, too. Go ahead and leave your comments, and maybe together we can find some answers.

As always, thanks for following along and #ThinkingJacob.

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From a Former Bulldog…

I received this comment from a “Former Bulldog” on my most recent blog this past Tuesday afternoon. It was so well done, I decided to publish it as its own post. Thank you for your compassion, Former Bulldog.

(Side note, the Bulldogs are Paynesville High School’s mascot. Their football team recently went undefeated this season and are heading into the Section playoffs. A state championship sure would be a great ending to a whirlwind year for this big-hearted town. Go Bulldogs!)

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Former Bulldog | October 21, 2014 at 12:19 pm

I too have thought a lot about whoever took Jacob.

I think there’s a good chance he reads this blog.

I don’t know if he took Jacob and kept him; I tend to think like Patty wrote that maybe he meant to let him go but something went wrong.

I grew up in Paynesville, in town, and am around Jacob’s age. I remember Chester the Molester, as we kids called him. I thought he was a figment of our imagination until finding this blog back in May. I had always connected Chester in my head to whoever took Jacob. It was shocking to me to discover this summer that not only was Chester real, but we kids were very possibly right in our hunch that it was Chester who got Jacob.

Did you know we called you that, Jacob’s abductor, if that was you, and if you’re reading this? We thought you were a monster and maybe you wanted us to think that. Maybe you still want us to think that. Now that I am an adult with kids of my own, I know that you aren’t a monster, because monsters don’t exist. What you are is broken, and you did some very broken things.

I’m pretty sure you were abused yourself as a child, that things happened to you that very much shouldn’t have happened. Things that weren’t okay. Did you know that? That they weren’t okay? Or did they happen so often that it seemed normal to you? Or is it complicated? Was there anyone who showed you love? Was it the person who showed you love who did the things to you that children should be shielded from? Or was there no love and only horrible things, and you have spent your life trying to get rid of the pain of your early years by doing similar things to children?

While I no longer believe you are a monster, you are still a figment of my imagination. I have no idea who you are or if any of that was true for you. If horrible things happened to you, as a mother, I want to say: I am so sorry that stuff happened to you that you felt you had to do horrible things back. The things you did weren’t right, and the things done to you weren’t right. If you were a part of our community, I am sorry that our community failed you, that it didn’t have the tools to deal with someone with your level of pain. But you weren’t alone in that: it didn’t have the tools to deal with your first victims in Paynesville either, which is why that article in the Paynesville Press went unnoticed by our teachers and parents.

You taking Jacob changed all that.

You taking Jacob set in motion a vast course correction within the community. The Wetterlings, somehow, miraculously, through their pain, were able to set up their foundation and set up the Sex Offender Registry, and since Jacob’s abduction, there is just no way that an article like that in the paper will ever go unnoticed by teachers or parents again. This is something we talk about now. There were teachers and faith leaders taken out of the game because of their sexual abuse, but only after you took Jacob. Victims feel more able to come forward. Justice happens more and more when they do. It is a different world, post-Jacob, I mean it still happens. But hopefully not as much and hopefully there is more help when it does happen and hopefully people don’t feel like their only option is silence or perpetrating the abuse.

I would imagine you felt really powerless, as a child. I would imagine that your actions as an adult were about getting power back: having power over the terrified boys, having the power of surprise as you laid in wait, having the physical strength to outrun them and overpower them and scaring them into doing what you wanted…

I propose to you that that isn’t real power, what you felt when you attacked those boys and when you took Jacob. It was fake. It was a temporary feeling of adrenalin, and I’ll bet your actions made you feel worse in the end. Do you know what I think real power is? Real power is the ability to heal and transform yourself. Do you know who has real power? Your victims, the ones who were able to take what had happened to them and work with it and make their lives better not just despite it, but because of it, like what the Wetterlings did, and like what Jared did. Those are people who are truly powerful, my friend. Take a look at them if you want to learn about power.

There is no doubt that you are powerful, even though I believe your actions hurt you most of all. Look at what you have created. You took Jacob and the entire community changed. Even 25 years after the fact, your actions were so powerful that Joy created this blog and people are talking and thinking about it still. Maybe your taking Jacob was a cry for help, even if not a conscious one, help for you and people like you, and look: what you did had the consequence, in a twisted way, of helping.

But you yourself still need help. There are people who can help you, but they can’t help you if they don’t know who you are.

You are probably an old man by now, but it is not too late for you to experience true power. You are the one who took Jacob, you can bring him back. You can talk to the Wetterlings, and tell them what happened to their son. Tell them where he his. If he is dead you can’t bring him back, but you can bring him home. Speak. It will transform your life. It will be a kind of redemption for you, but I believe it is the only way. You have the power to do it; you are the only one who does. Save yourself. By speaking, you have the power to heal not only yourself and the Wetterlings and the Paynesville victims and all of us who have been so affected by this case, but I also believe you have the power to heal backwards and forwards in time, so that the healing extends to the people who did this to you, and also to future generations.

That is a lot of power. Use it.

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25 Years

Wow… where to begin. It’s been such a whirlwind year, and I’ve been overwhelmed trying to decide how to write this blog post. It’s incredibly hard to put into words what the 25th anniversary of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction means to me. But, I definitely have some things to say, so here we go.

This Wednesday, October 22nd, will mark 25 years since Jacob Wetterling was taken at gunpoint from a rural road in St. Joseph, Minnesota. It was just after 9pm, and Jacob was returning home from a local convenience store where he had gone to rent a movie with his friend, Aaron, and his younger brother, Trevor. They were just a few blocks from home when a masked gunman stopped them, ordered them to put their bikes in the ditch and lie face-down on the ground. One by one, they were asked how old they were, then Trevor and Aaron were told, “Run toward the woods and don’t look back, or I’ll shoot.” When they got far enough away and dared to look back, Jacob and the gunman were gone. He has not been seen since.

This past Tuesday, six billboards went up in locations near Jacob’s abduction. They say “STILL MISSING” and show a picture of Jacob in 1989, along with an age-progressed picture of what he might look like today at age 36. They also include the number for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1-800-THE-LOST. Anyone with a tip is encouraged to call the hotline. You may remain anonymous.

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Along with the billboards, the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office, together with Jerry and Patty Wetterling, the FBI, the BCA, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) gave a joint press conference. Patty and Jerry both spoke, and we were encouraged by the words of John Ryan, President and Chief Executive Officer of NCMEC, who said that in a five year time span, from 2009-2013, over 160 kids had been found who had been missing between 11-20 years.

Wow. Wouldn’t that be something.

The fact that all these agencies are coming to the table after 25 years is both encouraging and hopeful. I think it is a testament to how active this case really has been, especially in the past year.

I also think there’s an interesting phenomenon that has started to occur. I didn’t catch it at first, but it started to gel after I was reviewing some of the comments and messages I’ve received on my blog over the past few years. It seems there’s a common phrase I keep hearing over and over, and it comes from a generation who is just now beginning to realize how much Jacob’s disappearance has impacted their lives. It goes something like this… “Now that I’m a parent myself…”

You see, these are Jacob’s peers who have been talking to me. They’re in their late 30s now, hovering toward that monumental 40th birthday. They’re busy chasing kids, life, and the American dream. But, when they finally get a chance to slow down and reflect for a moment, I think they’re starting to realize something. At this point in their lives, they are now very close to the same age that Jerry and Patty Wetterling were when Jacob was taken. And for them, like all of us, that is an unbearable thought.

But something is different this go-round. This generation thinks and acts differently than any generation before them. They have something that is innate and instinctive to them. It’s called technology… and they know how to use it.

In the past few years (and the last year in particular), I have seen this investigation explode because of the power of the internet. From blogs and forums, to Facebook and Twitter, people are talking and sharing more than ever before. And more than that, they’re demanding answers.

Throughout the past year, I have seen victims reach out to other victims, encouraging each other to come forward and share their stories. For many, it’s the first time they’ve ever spoken openly about their experience. It is raw, and emotional, and hugely impactful. And while these memories are deeply painful for all of them, they have agreed to do it for the same reason… because now they are parents themselves.

We admire Patty and Jerry Wetterling for all they’ve done to make this world a better and safer place for our children. In 1990, they started a foundation in Jacob’s name to raise awareness about childhood abduction (now called the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center). They helped pass the Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994 which required states to implement a sex offender and crimes against children registry. They have reached out to other families of childhood abduction, and in 1998, helped found Team HOPE, a national support group for families of missing children. Today, Patty serves as the Director of Sexual Violence Prevention for the Minnesota Department of Health, and is also the Chair of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

For these things and more, we admire and respect the Wetterlings. But it’s more than that. We also see them as parents, just like ourselves, so we grieve for them, hurt for them, and wish so badly there was something we could do to help.

The truth is, Jacob could have been any of our children. He was an 11 year old boy, doing what 11 year old boys do. He was taken from a kind and gracious family who loves him, and who did everything they knew to keep him safe. So, how does a boy like Jacob get taken from a small town like St. Joseph, on a country road that was just blocks from his home?

Not OK.

Not then, not now, not ever.

Jacob, we will never forget you, and we will never stop searching and demanding answers. As Minnesotans, we consider you one of our own… OUR son. Our Jacob.

The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center reminds you to keep your porch light on this Wednesday, October 22, and to also do something kind that helps build hope in our children. They offer a list of 25 suggestions you might try to honor Jacob and his family.

And, as always, please keep the tips and prayers coming. Thanks for #ThinkingJacob with me.

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Jennifer’s story

In the fall of 1989, Jennifer was 22 years old and a senior at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota. She had picked up a part time job at the local Tom Thumb convenience store, and worked there from 6pm until midnight a few nights a week.

On October 22, Jennifer was working the night Jacob, Aaron, and Trevor came into the store to rent a video. She is the last person to see Jacob before he was abducted.

This is her story.

Jennifer’s parents didn’t like her working at the Tom Thumb so late at night, and her bike ride home took her along a particularly long, dark stretch of road. She figured she should be able to pick up a waitressing job somewhere in town, so ironically, Jennifer had just given her two week notice to her manager that very day.

There was another young man working with her in the store that night. The two of them worked their shift just like any other night… nothing seemed unusual or concerning.

When Jacob and the two other boys came into the store, Jennifer remembers them picking out some candy and a video. Major League had already been rented, so the boys decided on The Naked Gun instead. Jacob signed his name on the video rental receipt, Jennifer put their Blo-Pops in a bag, and off they went. Just another transaction on the cash register… no big deal.

It wasn’t until about 11:25pm when two local FBI agents came into the store that Jennifer and the other young man on staff had any idea something was wrong. The officers didn’t come right out and say that a child had been kidnapped, but Jennifer definitely got the impression that’s what had happened given the nature of the questions they were being asked.

I asked Jennifer whether she remembers seeing any police cars go by that night. She said she remembers seeing police cars go by, but does not remember hearing any sirens or any helicopters all night long… even after returning home. She remembers waking up to the sounds of helicopters flying low over their campus the next morning, but she didn’t hear any the night before.

I also asked Jennifer if she remembers seeing the “scary bald guy” in the store who witnesses say had been skulking around and scaring customers around the same time as the boys were there. She said no, she doesn’t remember that… if those accounts are true, they didn’t come from her. She also doesn’t recall anything about Kevin coming into the store and talking to a “medical cop,” but she said it could have happened if the other young man working that night had been the one at the counter at that time. She may have been in the back or in the bathroom when that exchange took place.

Jennifer’s part in all this really takes place two weeks later. It was Sunday, November 5th, and it was her last day of work at the Tom Thumb, since she had just given her notice two weeks earlier.

The store was filled with pictures of Jacob, missing posters, yellow ribbons, etc. There was also a collection jar for donations on the counter. Everyone was on high alert, and Jennifer had been very active in all the prayer vigils and other “Jacob events” taking place in St. Joseph.

Around 9pm, an older man in his 60s came into the store and was acting very strangely. He was almost bald with receding gray hair, a gruff voice, and a rude demeanor. He seemed to just be wandering aimlessly around the store, so Jennifer asked if he needed help. He said he was looking for some soup… Campbell’s soup. “I’m going to need about six cans of that,” he told her. Jennifer told him where it was, but he just seemed really “out of it,” so she came out from behind the counter and brought him over to the soup.

When they got there, he asked her if there was something called “chicken noodle” or something like that? Jennifer pointed out the chicken noodle soup, then picked out six cans for him. Next, he asked, “You have any of those, um… saltine crackers?” She thought he was really weird… like he had never seen a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup or a package of Saltine crackers before. Again Jennifer had to lead him to the crackers in a different aisle and point them out. He said “I’ll need about two boxes of those.” She picked the crackers off the shelf for him, just as she had the soup.

After she rang up his purchases, the man pulled out his wallet, which was THICK with cash. He noticed the donation jar and said, “So, do you think they’ll ever find that boy?” Jennifer replied something like, “Yes, I hope so,” and the guy laughed and said, “They’ll never find that boy.” As he turned to leave, he passed another customer and asked the same thing… “Do you think they’ll ever find that boy?” He laughed again and made the same remark… “They’re never going to find him.”

Everything about the guy said “red flag,” so Jennifer hurried to the window after he left and took note of the car he was driving. She didn’t get the license number, but she remembers it was a big, fancy, dark blue car… similar to a Lincoln Continental.

3_compositesAfter this exchange took place, Jennifer suddenly became an important part of the investigation. She remembers working closely with FBI agents, and also worked with a sketch artist to put together a composite of the suspect. Her sketch is the second one in the photo on the right.

The first sketch is the “scary bald guy” from the Tom Thumb who witnesses say had a piercing stare, a gruff demeanor, and very odd behavior. He was seen standing outside the store near an ice machine at about 9pm. He did not speak or make any purchases, and no vehicle was seen. Authorities say the same man was also seen at a Quik Mart in Avon earlier that day.

The third sketch is of a man who tried to abduct a 9 year old boy in New Brighton on November 8. The boy was riding his bike near his home when the man ordered him to get into his car. The boy sped away, but the man followed him to his home and did not leave until the boy’s mother walked outside.

After seeing all three sketches together in a newspaper article on November 23, 1989, Jennifer admits that the first one, not her own, was actually a better representation of the guy she saw.

In all these years, Jennifer does not remember being contacted by anyone from Stearns County to follow up on this case. She remembers working with the FBI in the months following the abduction, but at no time in the past 24 years has she ever talked to anyone from the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office. She even called in once herself to follow-up with a lead, but in that case, a meeting that had been set up between herself and investigators was later cancelled, and then never rescheduled.

In February 2004, Jennifer agreed to be interviewed by FOX 9 News out of the Twin Cities. It was during that interview that Jennifer was finally able to meet Patty Wetterling for the first time. It was a raw and emotional meeting that held even more meaning for Jennifer since she was an elementary school teacher and a mother herself by then. Like all of us, she so badly wants to provide answers for the Wetterling family.

(Click here to download a transcript of the 2004 FOX 9 news story…) …

It was yet another crazy coincidence that brought Jennifer and me together. A mutual acquaintance who knows us both encouraged Jennifer to give me a call. That phone call was incredibly hard to make, and I want to thank Jennifer for sharing her story, even though I know it is still excruciatingly painful for her to relive these memories.

On that note, I’d like to thank all the people who have been brave enough to come forward and share their stories with me over the past two years. It is still my firm belief that someone out there knows something that could help solve this case. That one person may not even know they hold the key, so by sharing these stories and keeping the dialogue going, there’s a good chance that, together, we might truly make a difference.

So… keep sharing, keep hoping, keep praying… and keep #thinkingjacob.

*** SIDEBAR ***
I just spoke to one of the producers from The Hunt tonight who is currently taking tips at the show’s hotline. CNN is re-airing several episodes of The Hunt this evening, including Jacob’s story, which will air at 12 midnight. So, if you still haven’t had a chance to catch the show, set your DVR or make yourself some strong coffee. You don’t want to miss it a third time!

I asked how many tips the show had generated so far, and I was told they have taken 111 tips so far on their hotline and they continue to get more calls every day. When I checked last week, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had also received over 100 tips, and that was soon after the show aired. As for me, I have received over 70 tips which I continue to pass along to law enforcement. Thanks again to everyone for caring and getting involved!

Again, if you have a tip, please call 1-866-THE-HUNT, 1-800-THE-LOST, or the Stearns County Sheriff’s Department at (320) 259-3700.

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John Walsh and Jared on WCCO Radio

Once again, thanks to everyone who has been following this story, and for those who have taken the time to either leave a comment or send a private message on my blog. The overwhelming response to Jacob’s story on CNN’s “The Hunt with John Walsh” last Sunday is a true testament to the number of people who still care very deeply about this case, and for the Wetterling family.

I hope everyone had a chance to read Patty’s article that she wrote for CNN, “Five questions for my son’s abductor.” I read it as I was getting ready to leave work last Friday, and I ended up having to wear my sunglasses out of the office because I couldn’t stop the tears. (Never mind the fact it was raining… lots of weird looks.)

As I’ve gotten to know Patty over the past year, I can tell you that she is truly amazing. She’s the current Board Chair of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the Director of the Minnesota Department of Health’s Sexual Violence Prevention Program. However, I can tell you that she is also kind, compassionate, and gracious. I am lucky to know her… she is a true American hero. Yet, at the end of the day, she is a mom, just like me, who has suffered a terrible, incomprehensible loss. She has never stopped searching for her son, never stopped fighting for answers, and never lost hope that someday the answers would come.

Today, Esme Murphy of News Radio WCCO 830 interviewed John Walsh from “The Hunt,” and Jared, the 12 year old boy from Cold Spring who was abducted just nine months prior to Jacob. Tips continue to come in, and, according to Walsh, the key to cracking this case will be for local law enforcement to collaborate with outside agencies to bring fresh eyes to the case.

Again, if anyone has a tip on Jacob’s case, Jared’s case, or the 1986-1989 Paynesville incidents, please call 1-866-THE-HUNT, 1-800-THE-LOST, or the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office (320) 259-3700. Thanks for caring and getting involved!

Click below to listen to today’s WCCO podcast of Esme Murphy’s radio interviews.

WCCO_JohnHines_Podcast_9-5-2014

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